On a shelf at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office, an artist drawing of a Jane Doe sits among posters of missing persons. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
She was murdered near Everett in 1977. Years of detective work finally revealed her name: Lisa Roberts, 17.
Caleb Hutton | Herald (Everett WA) | Friday, June 26, 2020
She was 400 miles from home when she called her mother for the last time. She was still a girl, just barely, at 17½.
High school classmates knew her as Lisa before she ran away from Roseburg, Oregon, in the summer 1977. On the phone from Everett, she asked her mom to send money. Her parents pleaded with her to come home, and Lisa said she’d think about it. They sent a check to a branch of Seafirst Bank. Lisa never picked it up.
For the next 43 years, her identity was lost, obliterated by a killer who told police he didn’t bother to get her name.
Her identity evaded police, and evaded police, and evaded police. Twice as long as she was alive, Snohomish County investigators knew her as Jane Doe, or Precious Jane Doe, as detective Jim Scharf began calling her when he took on the case in 2008.
Finally, this month, investigators working with a pro bono team of 16 genealogists unearthed her name — Lisa Roberts — as well as basic facts about her life. It’s one of the first cold cases in the world solved with DNA extracted from hair, and it’s the oldest case of unidentified remains solved with forensic genealogy in Snohomish County.
Her name was released Thursday by the sheriff’s office.
For decades, police knew only the circumstances of her death.
David Marvin Roth, then 20, picked up a tall, tan, pretty hitchhiker on Aug. 9, 1977. She refused his advances. Then he offered her a strange gift, a peacock feather, as an apparent distraction.
Blackberry pickers discovered the young woman’s body on Aug. 14, 1977, in brambles off Emander Road, which is now a much busier street renamed Fourth Avenue W. She had been strangled, shot many times in the head and left to decompose for days in the summer heat. She carried no purse, no driver’s license and few clues to her past.
“This girl,” Scharf said, “she had to be loved by somebody, and here she was getting picked up by someone who just wanted to have sex. … She did the right thing, and it got her killed. So I thought, ‘This girl is precious to me, she’s got to be precious to somebody else.’”
Investigators exhumed her remains from Cypress Lawn cemetery in Everett in 2008. A University of North Texas lab extracted a partial genetic profile from a femur for a national database called CODIS. (No matches.) In the past three years, labs have tried and failed four times to recover a clean sample from other bones for whole genome sequencing, a complete snapshot of a person’s genetic makeup.
Ultimately, the DNA that unveiled her identity came from strands of hair in a property room at the sheriff’s office, never buried, stored alongside clothes, cigarettes and coins that were considered evidence. It took over two years for a California paleontologist to acquire a useful genetic profile from the hair, following faltering attempts of his own to refine an algorithm, so it could be shared on the public ancestry sites GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA.
Through the power of those databases and old-fashioned digging through records, genealogists had already rebuilt pieces of Precious Jane Doe’s family tree, tracking down potential distant cousins and distant grandparents, but never coming closer than a third cousin.
Years of research were led by renowned genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter, whose work on the Golden State Killer case ushered in a new era of cold-case forensics. Two weeks ago, when the new genetic profile was uploaded online, they quickly pinpointed Precious Jane Doe’s biological family in Oregon.
“Once we had that, it connected right in with the trees that we had,” Rae-Venter said. “Three trees were intersecting. It’s basically X marks the spot.”
The detective eventually got in touch with a man he believed was the girl’s biological older half-brother — adopted by another family — and learned he had already shared his DNA on Ancestry.com. A genetic comparison that same night suggested Precious Jane Doe was his long lost half-sister, Elizabeth Elder.
“It was kind of hard to believe,” said Scharf, a Snohomish County cold case detective who has also pioneered the new field of forensic genealogy from the law enforcement side. “I always have that feeling, it’s like, ‘This is like magic, how do you come up with this information?’ And it’s always correct. It’s the best tool in the world. If you can get DNA on a case, it’s always solvable now.”
It took another week to confirm her surname, which was changed at adoption. For most of her life, she had been Elizabeth Ann Roberts.
That’s the name beside her black-and-white photo in the Roseburg High yearbook in 1976, when the sophomore had a kind of bowl cut, with her bangs in a straight line centimeters above the eyebrows. If you study the picture long enough, you may pick up on small things you missed at first, like how Lisa is squinting ever so slightly with her right eye, as if something was a bit off in the moment the camera flashed and preserved her portrait for the record.
She spoke in a monotone, no accent, no sign of higher education. She smoked cigarettes with her right hand. She looked to be in her 30s, because she had wrinkles around her eyes. That’s how David Roth remembered the person he killed.
He returned to Everett after serving his time in prison. Cold case investigators knocked on his door in 2008 to ask if he would help to uncover the girl’s identity. He agreed to try.
“You pick up a stranger, a hitchhiker, she’s not going to tell you her name. You’re not trying to get personal,” Roth told The Daily Herald back then. “She didn’t ask me my name.”
For decades, Precious Jane Doe’s biography could fit on an index card. She wore a pastel tank top with blue, green and pink stripes. In the pockets of her denim cutoffs, she had 17 cents, an open pack of Marlboros and an empty plastic bag. She wore a blue-and-white pair of Mr. Sneekers, boys size 7. A Timex watch with a yellow face and a leather band was fastened to her left wrist. She stood 5-foot-10 and weighed around 155 pounds, with light brown hair.
She was walking south on the Bothell-Everett Highway, on the east side of Silver Lake, thumbing for a ride. Roth picked her up in a Chevy Nova. He was not quite 21, but his 6-foot-5 frame and a receding hairline evidently helped him buy beer at a grocery store. He drove with her to a hidden spot near Mariner High School. He wanted to have sex. She turned him down, saying she wanted to go home.
He offered her the peacock feather, then took out his rage on her. He choked her with a bungee cord and dragged her into the bushes. He emptied the clip of his .22-caliber rifle into her head.
Days later, police were called about a man waving a rifle in a park outside Gold Bar. On the way to the scene, an officer stopped a car weaving on U.S. 2. The Chevy Nova smelled like pot. Inside were bags of cannabis, roach clips, a loaded .22-caliber rifle and a bundle of feathers. Roth was arrested. By the time police were called about the body, he had been released from jail.
Later, Roth confided in a friend that he killed a hitchhiker. The friend called police. After building a case against him, officers arrested Roth early on Jan. 18, 1979, at a Port Orchard apartment.
A jury convicted him of first-degree murder on Nov. 9, 1979.
In the meantime, the young woman’s hands were removed and sent to the FBI headquarters for fingerprints. No matches.
Anybody who might have made a connection between Elizabeth Ann Roberts and the nameless body would have had good reasons to dismiss the thought, based on official statements released by the sheriff’s office. Early news articles reported she was a grown adult, anywhere from her early 20s to late 30s.
Her skull was never buried, and forensic dentist Dr. Gary Bell peered into her mouth in 1988. He found she’d had work done on her front teeth, and one of her wisdom teeth had roots that were still developing. He estimated she was 17 to 24 years old. No dental records ever came back as an apparent match for a missing person.
In 1992, a local television report on “Evening Magazine” followed along with Snohomish County homicide detective John Hinds as he took a class in clay reconstructions, using the skull of the Jane Doe to make his cast. It was a first attempt, and in retrospect that’s painfully clear, as the resulting replica bore little resemblance to the girl in the yearbook. Police dressed up the model in a scarf, a frizzy wig and a shimmering long-sleeve shirt. After the show aired, a tipster called wondering if it might be a relative in her 50s.
Hinds rebuilt her face again as a forensic artist — still using the skull, but on paper, in two dimensions — around the time Scharf took on the case in 2008. A second artist, former police officer Natalie Murry, gave it another shot with digital tools in 2016. The drawings captured traits of the real Lisa Roberts: proportions of her chin and mouth, a certain crookedness near the tip of her nose, and even the spaghetti straps of her striped tanktop.
Forensic anthropologist Dr. Kathy Taylor examined the exhumed remains in 2008 and revised previous estimates about the young woman’s age. She believed she was 15 to 21 years old. If she had to narrow it down, she’d guess 16 to 19.